Speaking of the MCU, Eternals sets itself apart from its 25 cousins by rarely invoking any of them. Brief, passing mentions are made of Thanos, the Blip, and the Avengers, but this is a self-contained film and mini-universe within the larger canon, right down to the mid-credits and post-credits scenes (both of which are Marvel deep cuts, one quite good and the other feeling more like a cheap stunt). How and if the Eternals will find themselves interacting with the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, or anyone else in the MCU is a question that will presumably be answered in films to come.
The film at hand certainly plays more like a relationship melodrama than a superhero action ride, with a majestic sweep, less of the usual quippy dialogue, and a few daring moments such as an actual (albeit still modest) love scene involving two unclothed adults. The film also features, in another sequence, the MCU’s first gay kiss. And here, unlike a similar moment in The Rise of Skywalker, that kiss feels at least somewhat earned and organic, thanks again to the cast and Zhao’s way with simple human interaction.
Chan, Henry, Barry Keoghan (as the mind-controlling Druig), and Madden are all quite strong, with Chan bringing Sersi’s love for humanity to the forefront, and Madden adding imperfection to essentially the Superman of the group. Best is Nanjiani, who takes his usual comic persona in a dramatic direction as he wrestles with a painful existential conflict and blasts energy bolts from his hands. The weak link is Jolie, who does have a few good moments as Thena but, as usual, seems to be posing more than acting. Much better is a heartfelt Don Lee (Train to Busan) as her loyal friend, the super-strong Gilgamesh (in another first, the first Korean superhero in a Hollywood motion picture).
The entire cast looks quite good in their Eternals costumes and guide their characters into effective mixes of the humane and the all-powerful. Zhao lines them up in a number of stunning shots throughout the film, and gives everything a colorful, widescreen texture that should be seen in a large theater. The presence of the great Kirby is felt throughout as well in the geometric designs that pervade the technology of the Eternals and the places where they’ve left their mark on in human history.
Eternals itself is far from perfect, but—as with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and shows like WandaVision—it does indicate that the Marvel movie factory is not content to rest on its already massive bed of laurels. Introducing a large new cast of mostly unfamiliar characters, giving them a complex, time-spanning backstory, and making its central conflict more personal than usual, Eternals is not exactly the arthouse fare we’ve seen before from Zhao but it isn’t a typical superhero tentpole either. When it finds the sweet spot between both is when it works the best.
Eternals is out in theaters Nov. 5.